By Preston Wilder
What’s the protocol for reviewing remakes of well-known older films? I re-watched Don Siegel’s 1971 version of The Beguiled, starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page, just a few days before watching this new Sofia Coppola version (with Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman in the same roles), and I’m still not sure if I did the right thing. On the one hand, ordinary viewers are unlikely to watch the two back-to-back; some won’t even know that the original exists. On the other, the original does exist, it’s readily available online or on DVD, and it’s hugely enjoyable, the war between men and women played as hothouse melodrama with a hefty dollop of dark comedy. It’s certainly more fun than this tame new take, which plays like the same story wrapped in cotton wool.
It is indeed the exact same story, a wounded Union soldier trapped in a “school for young ladies” behind enemy lines during the American Civil War. The women – headmistress Kidman, a teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and four young girls in their teens – can (and should) betray him to their own Confederate soldiers, but can’t bring themselves to do it, mostly because they’re ‘beguiled’ by him. The whole story crackles with sexual tension – though not really sexual, in Coppola’s ethereal re-imagining. Instead the atmosphere is dreamy and hazy, just about qualifying for a kind of repressed romanticism.
This is a hushed, soft-spoken movie. Cloudy light streams through lace curtains, rays of sun pierce the canopy of trees in the garden and woods beyond. The visuals are often very beautiful. As she did in The Virgin Suicides, Coppola creates a cosy bubble full of girl-talk and giggles. When soldiers visit, they do so briefly and usually seen from a distance. The girls’ interest in the soldier is discreet and civilised, mostly a matter of little waves as they pass him and dressing up when he joins them for dinner. The most important change Coppola makes to the source novel (and the 1971 movie) is leaving out the character of Hallie, the slave girl who’s part of the household – but it’s easy to see why she does it. The audience can’t be allowed to limit these characters, let alone peg them as slave-owners; the bubble must exist beyond place and time. These aren’t really 19th-century women; Coppola wants them to be Woman, a sisterhood lost in an idyll. The film isn’t really ‘about’ anything, and turns that into an asset.
I shouldn’t really use one Beguiled as a cudgel to beat another – but the very obvious difference from the 1971 version is that everyone’s nicer. Clint’s wounded corporal was a scumbag and a liar, licking his lips like a wolf in a henhouse when he discovered there was no other man about the place; Farrell’s soldier is a bit of a smoothie but a good sort, a pacifist and a gentleman, only losing his grip when circumstances get the better of him. Page in the original was a stern, unhappy figure, troubled by memories of incest and thoughts of lesbianism; Kidman is elegant and a bit remote, not averse to sharing a brandy with the corporal or allowing him out and about once his leg is better. The teenage sexpot (played by Elle Fanning) has also been toned down considerably, to the extent that the pivotal event makes no sense here – especially since our hero has just learned he’ll be cast out in a few days, and has an obvious interest in visiting one of the other beds which are open to him.
That’s the big, big problem with this new version: given how messy and melodramatic the plot gets, Coppola’s style can’t handle the gear-change and ends up looking incompetent. (It should also be noted that the ‘mushrooms’ plan no longer comes from Kidman, but has been assigned to a minor character; like I said, everyone’s nicer.) Then again, the style does bring something to the early scenes, and we do see a little more of the women – and it’s certainly a subtler movie than the rather cartoonish Siegel version, which was controversial even at the time (“A must for sadists and woman-haters,” wrote Judith Crist). The original showed a war going on inside the school, ironically matching the war going on outside the school; the remake posits the school as a balmy oasis from the war, poisoned by the presence of a male visitor. Which one you prefer is up to you.
“It’s a shame that I couldn’t remain helpless,” says the soldier at one point, and so it is. It’s a shame that conflict has to intrude, for a director whose greatest talent lies in showing closed ecosystems in a state of inertia and pleasant lethargy. Personally I reckon you’d be mad to watch this version when the old version is available – but of course this is more available, and of course it’s atmospheric and (yes) quite beguiling. What to do? Can someone come up with a protocol, please?
DIRECTED BY Sofia Coppola
STARRING Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning
US 2017 93 mins